I was in hell. I’ve never liked taking photos, but this was particularly bad. Shoved into a tuxedo – which my mom had surprised me with, because she’d clearly been conspiring with Ellie for a while – and forced to stand in a series of poses with Melissa while my mom cooed at stupid things like how ‘different’ I looked, or how well my tie matched Mel’s red dress.
Then there were group photos, at Ellie’s insistence, and I was forced to fake a smile, even though Louis and I were standing right next to each other. He and I also kept getting told to ‘stand closer’ by the parents taking the photos, and I was instructed to put my arm around his shoulders at one point. It wasn’t as if I could talk to him during any of that, and it felt like torture.
For all my mom’s talk of this being a night for me and my friends to remember forever, the people seeming to get the most joy out of it were definitely the parents. Of course they were, though. They’d all been served champagne, while all of my classmates and I had to be satisfied with sparkling grape juice. Only three of us in the whole year were still under eighteen. But Elohim High had never been good at nuance.
The school’s parking lot had been decorated for the occasion – a small stage had been set up in front of the gate at the grand sandstone entrance, and extra greenery had been moved in to augment the usual trees that dotted the sidewalks. A red carpet had been run along the path to the slipway where cars could pull up right outside the entrance, and a lot of the parking spots had been filled with tables bearing drinks and snacks.
It seemed a bit over the top, given that everyone would be hopping in our limousines – or whatever other vehicles people had wrangled – and heading off to the fancy hotel in town which held the ballroom where the real dance would take place. The parents had been invited to stay for as long as they liked afterwards though, and the drinks seemed to be flowing, so my guess was that the school was going to take advantage of this emotional evening by pumping them for donations one last time.
“You could at least look like you’re trying to enjoy yourself, you know.” Melissa smirked, picking at the neckline of her dress. “I wore one of those stupid adhesive bras for this.”
I chuckled. “My apologies to your boobs.”
“Damn right.” She grinned. “Poor things aren’t even getting groped tonight.”
“I could try, but my heart wouldn’t be in it.”
“You wouldn’t know what to do with them, is the problem.” She laughed. “But I’ll settle for you just telling me I look pretty.”
“You look beautiful.”
“Thanks.” She beamed at that. “Yeah, the red was a good choice. Look at the two of us. Gingers, embracing it.”
She stepped back and twirled. I wasn’t just trying to be nice – she really did look amazing, in her red dress with black accents, as the light of the sunset played off her coppery hair. She’d even done her makeup darker to match. All she needed was a pair of horns, and it would have made an excellent, if overly elegant, devil-themed halloween costume.
I only had two splashes of colour in my tux – the matching tie and pocket square that she had organised for me. I think that was the case for most of the guys – certainly everyone in our group. John had a green tie to match Sarah’s dress, Jamie and Jess had their matching deep blue that brought out their conveniently matching eye-colours. Sue’s boyfriend – whose name I had immediately forgotten – was actually wearing a white suit and tie with a black shirt, to match her very cool geometrically patterned black-and-white dress.
Ellie, of course, made sure her pairing was the most spectacular. Her deep purple dress with gold accents made her look like royalty, something that she’d clearly been going for. Her hair had been braided up into a crown, and tresses of it draped regally down her back, studded with pearls and little golden star. Gary was dressed simply, but he wore a matching golden tie, intricately knotted, and instead of a pocket-square he had a small spray of golden flowers. We’d both been Ellie’s projects today, but he’d definitely gotten more attention. Luckily for me.
If Ellie’s look was the most impressive, Angela’s was definitely the biggest transformation. She’d ditched her glasses, worn makeup for the first time I’d ever seen, and straightened her usually frizzy hair, pinning it up in a simple but elegant knot. She wore a pale blue dress that really made her eyes stand out. Everyone who saw her did a double take to figure out who she even was.
And then there was Louis, who as always, cleaned up so well. He’d also ditched his glasses, and styled his hair. He wore a simple tux, like me, and his pale blue tie was also matched to Angela’s dress. I’d seen him looking this good before, even if I was too stupid to realise what it had been doing to me at the time. But being aware of it… it was kind of taking my breath away.
“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Mel asked softly, putting her Ankara escort hand on my arm.
I looked over at her and sighed. “Yeah. He really does.”
“Any chance you two idiots are going to try and talk again tonight?”
I fidgeted nervously. “Well, it hasn’t gone well so far.”
“Yeah.” She let out a deep breath. “Sorry, I know you hate it when I stop the jokes and get sincere, but you two are very frustrating.”
“I know.” I grinned. “Sorry about that.”
“You will be.” She adjusted her dress and pulled at my arm. “Now, come on, I think we’re getting ready for the limos to take off. Ellie’s the committee member who got to pick the order, so you know we’ll be leading the procession.”
I let her lead me towards the red carpet. Before we were due to leave, it seemed like there’d be a speech from our headmaster, Mr. Haupt. He was a very chaotic and disorganised man, so it didn’t kick off immediately. It gave my mom time to pull me away from Mel, who wandered over to chat with Ellie and Gary.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
That felt like a loaded question, but I knew she just meant to go to the dance. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good. Just try to have fun, okay?” She reached up and dusted what could only have been imaginary lint off of my shoulders. “I know you get grumpy about doing things like this, but this is the last high school event you’ll ever have to put yourself through, so just enjoy it, please. You have your friends – a lot of them.”
“Yeah.” I grinned sheepishly. “Kind of late though, isn’t it?”
“Well, at least you have them now. That’s something. And I really like Louis. I’m so glad you two are such good friends. I love Ellie, of course, but it’s nice that you have someone… who has so much in common with you.” She shrugged. “And I think he’s been a good influence, too.”
“Yeah, Louis is great.” My eyes drifted across to him. He was just standing there, happily chatting with Angela. I wondered what he was thinking. I pulled at my collar, and turned back to my mom. “So, uh… are you sticking around after we head off?”
“Definitely.” She smiled. “We’ve gotten the babysitter for the twins anyway, so Malcolm and I will probably go out to dinner, but I think we’ll stick around and drink the free champagne until the school starts asking us for money.”
I laughed. “That’s what I thought they’d do, too.”
“Strange. It’s almost as if we’re related.” She fiddled slightly with my collar and leaned up to give me a kiss on the cheek, wiping it afterwards to make sure she hadn’t left lipstick behind. “Okay, there’s your headmaster. You’ll probably be leaving quite quickly after his speech. Bye, darling.”
“Say hi to Louis for me.” She gave me a serious look. “And please have fun.”
“I’ll try.” I grinned.
She smiled, nodded and slipped away. Caitlyn stalked past me, clearly in a bad mood. She was wearing a big, fluffy dress in her trademark bubblegum pink. She also looked beautiful, but angry, as always. I avoided her, since I wasn’t in the mood to trade barbs. Besides, the fact that she hated Eric too was almost endearing, given how I felt about him.
I went to go stand with Mel and Ellie while Mr. Haupt launched into his incredibly generic diatribe about the rewards of academic success. He followed it up with some corny jokes about ageing clearly designed to amuse the parents – they fell flat with the students, anyway – and just enough claptrap about the importance of friends and lifelong bonds that I had to shake my head and tune it out to stop myself from getting embarrassingly misty.
But then that was it. We were heading out. It wasn’t the last time I’d ever be seeing my high school, since we’d all have to be back for the awards ceremony at the end of the year. There was something about looking back, though, before I climbed into the limo. It felt very final.
Riding with me were Sara, John, Mel, Angela and – of course – Louis. I don’t know if Ellie had specifically planned that, or if it had just worked out that way, but it was awkward, either way. I was at least grateful that Jamie had ended up in the other one. From both of us, actually. I didn’t want Louis looking at him and wondering. So maybe Ellie had planned it, after all.
It didn’t get me any closer to talking to him, though. Not about that, anyway. It was an eight-seater for only six of us, but that was hardly roomy enough for a very private aside. Fortunately, everyone else was in better spirits, especially since Sue had made sure that the limos came packed with actual alcohol. The two of us nervously sipped away at our drinks, and he would occasionally even respond to me, or laugh at one of my stupid jokes. It gave me hope that we could at least try talking at the dance.
Hope which slowly started fading as we got there, because it looked like the event was going to be very formal, and I wasn’t sure how we’d get away from the rest of the group. Hotel staff Ankara escort bayan opened the limousine doors for us, and we poured out onto another red carpet that ran down a long, ornate hall, full of antique brass light features and cream marble tiles.
Mrs. A was there, wearing a black sequined dress that looked bizarre on her – way too decorative, but at least appropriately dark. She’d taken over the coordination of the actual event to make sure the evening ran smoothly. Last year’s dance, which had been purely run by the students, had gone off the rails – they’d all gotten drunk and someone had been rushed to the emergency room with a broken leg, or something. There might have been some property damage, too. I thought it sounded quite fun, but Mrs. A would clearly disagree with that assessment.
So we were all made to get into a pair of lines, boys on the right, girls on the left. Ellie, claiming the benefits of having been on the dance committee, got her way and was able to lead from the front of the procession. We all walked slowly along the hallway until we reached a grand pair of oak doors, which swung open for us as we approached.
The ballroom was amazing – a massive space with beautiful vaulted ceilings, adorned with decorative carvings. The floor-to-ceiling windows had red velvet drapes, and a plush navy coloured carpet covered the whole floor. Beautifully set tables, with pure white table clothes, gleaming crystal, sparkling silver and delicate ceramics. Ten ornate golden chairs circled each table, and a grand chandelier of gleaming brass hung in the middle of the room.
Incongruously, as if it were an afterthought – which I was fairly sure it was – a small light-up dancefloor had been set up underneath the chandelier, and a DJ booth had been unceremoniously plopped down one end of it. The DJ was a middle-aged guy who looked like he’d seen better days. He clearly wasn’t reading the room, because he was playing some ridiculous song that I didn’t even recognise. The music was so loud that we had to shout to communicate.
We lined up for the photographer, and got our couple’s pictures done. I wasn’t happy there were more photos, but not having the fawning parents there made it a bit more bearable. Except for the part where I had to put my arm around Louis again. This time, I knew it was Ellie’s fault that we’d ended up next to each other, but I was too preoccupied to glare at her. He looked directly into my eyes as we broke apart, and it felt like my heartbeat tripled its pace.
But after that, we all settled down at our seats, guided by Ellie to place settings that had cards with our names on them. Jess and Jamie were the only people who weren’t at our table. Ellie shouted over the music to explain to me that she’d had to cut someone from ours, and Jamie had wanted to be with his friends. She’d talked to Jess, who was fine with it, and mostly just happy to have been invited anyway.
Our table was skilfully coordinated, even if I wasn’t quite happy about how far Louis was away from me, because it made it impossible to even try to talk to him. But Ellie had arranged it so that not only were people sitting next to their date, but they were also – with the exception of Sue’s boyfriend and Gary, who were next to each other – sitting next to someone else they got along with.
So Sue and Angela, Louis and John, Sara and Melissa, Ellie and me had all been placed together, with our dates on the other side of us. Which was nice, because the DJ didn’t relent the whole evening, and the only way you could talk to someone was by leaning over and shouting.
I didn’t know if Ellie thought she was having a magical evening. For me, it wasn’t great. Even without the Louis thing, I just wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be enjoying. The music was too loud, conversation just couldn’t happen.
The weird juxtaposition of the formal dinner service of five courses with the clueless DJ would have been comical, if it wasn’t so uncomfortable. Mrs. A eventually caught on that it was a problem, but by then we were already eating dessert, and as the music died down, our ears were ringing, and conversation remained stunted.
It didn’t help that Louis was only one seat off from being directly opposite to me at the table, so we were mostly in each other’s line of sight, and found ourselves accidentally locking eyes the whole evening. Both of us would quickly glance away every time the other one looked up, but it still sent my heart thumping in my chest every time it happened.
The ‘dance’, if it was actually supposed to be about dancing, was a complete bust. The DJ didn’t seem to know how to get anyone on their feet any more than he knew how to keep things quiet and low-key when we were busy eating. The whole class migrated onto the dancefloor when he managed to play one song we actually all recognised and liked. I think it was more out of a sense of obligation, because it would have been weird to have not danced Escort Ankara at all. Even Louis and I joined for that, although I still didn’t get a chance to talk to him.
That one round of dancing happening was probably more luck than anything, because by the next song, the DJ had lost half of us, and by the one after that, it was pretty much only the people from our table still making an effort. I’d settled back down at my seat, and after a few more songs, Louis had joined me, although he’d gone to his place instead of sitting anywhere near me. He got up again, way too quickly. Before I’d even had the chance to work up the courage to move over and talk to him. He headed off towards the bathroom.
I wanted to break something. One of the stupid crystal glasses they’d been pouring our fruit juice into would have done nicely, but Mrs. A was still lurking around the edges of the room, glaring at us all like an angry dragon. So I just watched Louis go, feeling like my heart was bouncing around in the bottom of my ribcage.
A hand appeared in front of me, and I looked up to find Mel, who’d left the dancefloor. She held out her arm, and I rolled my eyes, but grabbed it anyway and stood up. The rest of the group was still there making idiots of themselves, and I didn’t really want to mope at the table alone. Mel wove her arm through mine, and started marching me away from the table.
But we didn’t join the others – we actually headed directly away, weaving around the tables. Making our way to the bathroom.
I saw her grin mischievously, but she didn’t respond. She just kept marching me. I could have resisted, but her grip was like iron. I also wasn’t confident enough in my brand-new dress shoes to just stop walking. She probably would have fallen over, and pulled me down with her, so that we’d collapse in a big, embarrassing heap on the floor.
We got to the bathroom door, and she let go of my arm. I turned to face her. She pointed her finger at me. “You’re going to go in there and talk to him.”
“No, seriously. I’m tired of this bullshit. You won’t say things to him, he won’t say things to you, but you’re both happy to sit there staring at each other all night, making us all feel awkward.” She shook her head. “I’m sick of it. Ellie’s sick of it. Sue doesn’t even know what’s going on, and she’s sick of it – I love that girl, by the way. Blunt as a fucking shovel. But anyway, we are done. You’re going in.”
With one hand, she firmly grabbed my arm – so firmly it hurt – and with the other, she pushed open the door to the men’s room and shoved me inside. I stumbled as I entered, and looked back to see her grabbing the handle and winking at me as she pulled the door closed. Louis was staring at me with an amused expression on his face as I turned to look at him.
I cleared my throat. “Uh… Mel is meddling.”
“Yeah, I see that.” He chuckled softly.
I heard her muffled voice from the other side of the door that probably said, “Speak to him!”
“Yes?” He raised his eyebrows.
“I…” I shook my head, and took a deep breath. Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about starting awkwardly now. Mel had already made that happen. I looked up at Louis, and tried to smile. “You’ve been there for everything that’s happened to me this year. The stuff with Eric, and with Jamie, and…” I flinched slightly as I saw the muscles of his jaw tighten. “Just all of it. So you’ve kind of had a front row seat to what a mess I am.”
“You’re not a mess,” he said softly.
I laughed sadly. “I am, though. I’ve made so many fucked up choices this year, when I should have just stepped away. Tried to control myself. It’s not like I needed to do any of the stuff I did this year, and… I don’t think I’d be good for you, Louis. You say you made your mistakes, but you made them a while ago, and I don’t think they were anywhere near as bad as mine. And you’re so mature and together, and you’ve been such a good friend and I just…” My words caught in my throat slightly, but I pushed through. “I don’t think I deserve you.”
He bit his lip, and nodded slowly. My words hung heavy between us, and I was filled with a sense of dread, like he was about to agree with me and walk out of my life forever. His every motion felt like it was tearing into my chest, and if we stood there in silence too much longer, I thought I’d collapse. Mercifully, though, he took a deep breath and started to speak.
“Jay, that’s absolutely ridiculous. I’ve had a crush on you since the first day I met you. Do you have any idea how much it hurt finding out about you and Eric? It felt like the cruellest possible joke the universe could play on me. You guys, getting together. Every time he told me about you two doing something, I hated him for it. I hate Nick now, and Jamie too, even though I don’t really know him.
“I could handle it when you were just that cute guy from AP maths, who I could barely manage to even talk to. You were just a fantasy then. But then you became real – you became my friend. This last year has been hell. I couldn’t stop thinking about you, but I felt guilty. You were Eric’s, even when you weren’t anymore. When you broke up I hated myself for being happy about it when you were in so much pain.